A perfect port, charming churches and an atmospheric old town are among the pick of the bunch in our top 10 attractions to visit in Marseille, France.
You have to take Marseille as you find it. It’s a city of swagger and attitude, one that has never really softened its edges to cater to visitors – it’s unapologetically French, and all the more alluring for it.
It wasn’t always a great tourist city, but it’s truly stepped up to the mark over the last decade, with the honor of being European City of Culture spurring an effort to prettify the city. Hotels improved, tourists were given a warmer welcome and scruffy areas got a much-needed lick of paint. It transformed Marseille into a place that is now a great city-break destination. Our list of things to do in Marseille will whisk you around, and ensure you don’t miss a single highlight.
Notre-Dame de la Garde
Towering over the city, casting its shadow over the people and the sea, it’s hard not to see Notre-Dame de la Garde from wherever you are in Marseille. It’s also hard not to see all of Marseille from your vantage point here. This Catholic basilica was consecrated in 1864 – although they didn’t finish building it for another decade – but is on the site of a much older chapel, one first completed in 1218.
Stepping inside now, you’ll see truly impressive mosaics and murals, and a bell tower with a stunning gilded statue of the Virgin Mary, adorned in gold leaf. Visit the crypt too to see a grislier side of the history here, before emerging to soak in that view, by far the best in the city.
Marseille’s old port – Vieux Port – has, for centuries, been the economic driving force of the city, and the source of much of its food. Even today, fresh fish is pulled ashore here on a daily basis, stocking the markets and furnishing the restaurants, as it has done for more than 2,000 years.
Two impressive forts – St Jean and St Nicolas – guard the port. There are restaurants and cafes galore here, too, with many serving the local specialty, bouillabaisse, a rich and luxurious fish stew. What was a rough area is now extremely visitor-friendly, with a Ferris wheel, tourist boats and plentiful places to sit and enjoy the stunning sunsets here.
Just over a mile out to sea from Vieux Port, you’ll find a fortified island with a long history – both in the real world and in fiction. The Chateau d’If houses a prison made famous by The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas’ 1844 classic of French literature. The people who make a living getting you on and off the island seem to truly believe the count was real, rather than a work of fiction, but this prison did host many political prisoners from the 16th century onwards. Head here for a literary pilgrimage, and make sure not to miss the views back to Marseille, also well worth the visit.
Le Panier is Marseille’s old town, first settled by the Greeks more than 2,000 years ago. It has ramshackle charm in abundance, combining color with atmosphere, and winding narrow streets mean it’s easy – and a pleasure – to get lost in. It’s a melting pot of an area, one where immigrants have always settled, making for a blend of cultures.
It also used to be the home of criminal gangs, although it’s way more attuned to visitors now, with sun-dappled squares, handsome cafes, unique shops and a sense of really being in the true heart of the city. You’ll come across some museums here, and the 18th-century Vieille Charité, with its domed chapel built by the city’s own Pierre Puget.
A road rather than a visitor attraction, per se, La Corniche is as picturesque a stretch as you can drive on anywhere in Europe. Occupying a three-mile curve of coastline – almost half of which is named after President John F Kennedy – you’re treated to blissful views of the Mediterranean before you arrive at the Prado, one of the best beaches in Marseille. Relax here, gaze out to see the islands floating offshore, or sit on a part of the circa-two-mile-long bench, once the world’s longest.
Hop on a boat for one of the area’s hidden gems – the Calanques. You can drive and then walk here, but the steep hills will be a test of even the hardiest walkers. Plus, the boats will let you adore the aquatic beauty of this stretch of coast. It has the best beaches in the area, limestone cliffs and breathtaking views, stretching between Marseille and Cassis. The inlets, bays and vertiginous cliffs lend this area a natural splendor and drama that has, over the years, attracted many inspiration-seeking artists.
Cathedrale de la Major
Called La Major by Marseille’s locals, the Cathedrale de la Major is a mid-to-late 19th-century basilica built on the sight of an earlier, 12th-century cathedral – there are still some remains of the older place of worship. Look away from it and you’ll get a phenomenal view of the port. Look at it and you’ll enjoy the extravagant limestone exterior built in a Byzantine style. Inside there are mosaics, statues and impressive arches.
The Palais Longchamp is very much a triple treat. It’s a gorgeous attraction in its own right, but it also has a heavenly park outside – which is at its best in summer – and two museums inside, including the Musée des Beaux-Arts. The latter has been in a wing of the Palais since 1869, and contains pieces by Rubens, Jan Brueghel the Younger, Canaletto and Rodin. In the opposite wing, you’ll find the Natural History Museum, one of the best in France.
The Musée des civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée – or MuCEM for short – is a modern marvel. While it delves deep into the past of the Mediterranean people and places, it does so in an utterly contemporary building. The approach inside is fresh and inspirational, while outside you’ll find a walkway that is high and narrow, linking MuCEM with Fort St Jean.
Leading directly from the port, Le Canebiere is one of Marseille’s most important boulevards, a street that occupies the same place in local life as the Champs-Élysées does in Paris. It may not have the grandeur of the past, but it has recently received a facelift that is bringing back echoes of its glory days. It’s a riot of life, with stalls selling spices, ethnic food places and, here and there, memories of Marseille’s long-gone past.
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